Lyrics of love, loss, longing in Mark Sebastian’s new ‘A Trick of the Light’

Music · Reviews

From time to time, singer/songwriter Mark Sebastian’s well-meaning comperes have cautioned him about the lyrical content of some of his songs. Sebastian’s literate and sophisticated songs explore the romantic battleground between men and women.

He crafts exceedingly poetic evocations of love, loss and longing. The title track contains some of the best contemporary writing you’re liable to hear for some time: “A little comfort, a little pain, a little hunger, and a handful of rain. Oh, baby, can we bring it back again?”   

Sometimes Sebastian hints at love as blood sport, as though life doesn’t hold enough disappointment. In art, as in life, things can get rough. But Sebastian leaves room for cock-eyed optimism; it’s not all body-blocks and sharp elbows. The hopeful subject in “A Voice In The Forest” wants nothing more than for this time to work out with the only other person who hears that same distant voice.  

This perfect number of nine songs is Sebastian’s latest collection. “I had to get these songs out,” he discloses. “This album is the most important piece of work I’ve done.” The array of different musical styles comprise a thumbnail resume: folk, blues, East and West Coat pop, and Soul among them. The twelve-string guitar, Sebastian’s primary instrument since his teen years on the Greenwich Village folk scene, instrumentally drives them with authority. 

Choose your own favorite, but “Riverrun” is a real gem. The singer sifts through mementoes from a relationship in flux, and they underscore his longing for a time when “the world seemed simpler then,  by the riverrun.”  The log drum punctuation and vocal harmony interlude is a hat-tip to Sebastian’s erstwhile writing partner, Brian Wilson, and it adds to the poignancy of the nostalgic introspection.  

These songs are lyrically and musically layered. Listen closely and pick up on the clever cultural references as they come winging by. Whether it’s an Easter egg of an arcane reference or a chord that has you scratching your head, those Sebastianisms invite repeated scrutiny. The more you hear, they more you’ll discern. 

Perhaps Sebastian’s most emotionally-charged vocal here, “A Trick Of The Light,” reveals the timbral similarity with the singing of his celebrated older brother, John Sebastian, of The Lovin’ Spoonful. Mark was, of course, a meaningful junior partner to the band, contributing their only Number One hit, “Summer in the City,” to the Spoonful canon.

“Get Up and Move,” a dance floor jam, is no anomaly. For a time, Sebastian was a staff writer for Earth, Wind and Fire. When he opened for Doors guitarist Robby Krieger’s band, it featured Motown Funk Brother guitarist, Wah Wah Watson (1950-2018). Sebastian and Watson collaborated in the studio, where Wah Wah played all the instruments, and Mark sang lyrics he improvised. The cassette lay untouched until Sebastian recently rediscovered it, and subtly polished it.  

Taken as a whole, the repertoire on this album is the voice of a man who’s won some and lost some. Sebastian still believes in love, as we all should. Very few of us, however, do it so evocatively and musically. 

Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.

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